Author / Actor / Audience

Posted by Marc

At any given time when you’re playing a story game–beyond the trappings of the setting, the characters, and the mechanics–you’re performing one of three functions: author, actor, or audience. Most games do not explicitly tell you this is what you’re doing, but nearly all include the roles in some form. Knowing how these functions work can improve your ability to scrutinize game designs, so let’s dive in and see what we can uncover. 

The Three Functions

You’re an author when you’re creating fiction. This includes things like making characters and locations, describing facts about the game world, and explaining what your characters do or how events happen. The plot of the story also falls under this umbrella. You’re exercising authorship whenever you decide the direction a story will go, such as when you have a character make a certain choice or when you bring a new situation into the game.

Authorship is foundational to story games. It is what makes them story games and not, well… just stories. When you read, watch, or listen to a story, you’re only the audience. If you read a script out loud with or for others, you can also be an actor while being the audience. But unless you write or create fiction yourself, you’re not an author.

You’re an actor when you portray a character. Most roleplaying games ask you to do this at least some of the time. Whenever the other players call you by a name that’s not your own, you’re probably acting in the role of a character from the story. Acting in this sense is improvisational, not scripted, and is much closer to “having a conversation” than “putting on a show”.

Strong acting skills are not generally a prerequisite for a successful story game. As I like to tell players when I’m introducing them to the hobby, “This isn’t improv theater. Nobody is here to judge your performance.” Your ability to portray a character isn’t the focus of the game, nor does it affect the outcome of the story. You can get away with a lot by saying things like, “And then the queen gives a rousing speech that inspires and motivates her army!”, thereby skipping the acting entirely. But you’re still called to act when you are asked to think like your character and say what they do.

You’re the audience when you observe and enjoy the unfolding story and the characters you’ve made within it. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re passively observing; as a member of the audience before a live performance, you have the ability to influence the outcome based on your reaction to what’s happening. Whenever you listen to the other players weaving new elements into the tapestry of your shared tale, you’re the audience. 

The audience role is essentially the default. If you’re not actively answering questions or making up new fiction, and you’re not portraying a character, then you’re the audience. You as a viewer have ideas and preferences for how the story might go, and while you cannot influence the direction of the story very much as the audience, you’ll have considerable ability to do so as soon as you take on one of the other roles again. 

Three Functions in Action

These three roles are neither static nor mutually exclusive. As you play a story game, you rapidly swap hats, often within a single scene or even a single sentence. This is where the magic happens: you can simultaneously be acting, authoring new fiction, and enjoying the contributions you and the other players are making. It’s a very special experience and one that, at least for me, makes story gaming compelling in a way few other mediums can match.

I’ll start with my own games as an example. The three functions appear in both Eden and the forthcoming Epitaph. In Eden, players are authors when they create the Garden and their characters, and when they decide how the Garden and its inhabitants change over time. In Epitaph, they’re authors when they work together to create the Departed, when they build Moments on the timeline, and when they dive into Snapshots, Scenes, and Remembrances.

Yet even as they author new fiction, players can also be actors. The line becomes insubstantial any time a player is portraying a character (or animal in Eden), because everything that character says and does is being invented at the moment the player says it–they’re writing the plane as they fly it, to twist a metaphor. This is one of the main things that sets story game roleplaying apart from stage acting–in a theater production, everyone knows what to say because they have a script. No scripts in story games! (unless it’s Daniel Wood’s My Daughter, the Queen of France, and even then the joy is in rewriting the “script” through iterative scenes)

The audience role is happening throughout play too. Every time it’s not your turn in Eden or Epitaph, you’re watching what the other players create and enjoying the new directions they take the story in. And even when you are in the midst of authoring or acting, you’re also watching yourself and thinking about your own contributions. If you’ve ever been suddenly struck with an idea for your next turn that’s so good you go, “Ooh!”, you know the feeling I mean: being excited about what you’ve just created is one of the richest joys of story gaming.

This is the most unique feature of tabletop roleplaying: the ability to be your own audience and to be thrilled by your own ideas alongside those of the other players. Good movies, good music, good books, all of these can stir powerful emotions in you–but you probably didn’t create them. You simply enjoyed them. With a story game, you can invent brand new things and then turn around and immediately admire what you’ve made. 

Taking It Further

When it comes to utilizing the three functions, most story games strike a balance, but certain games focus more on one than the others. For example, Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year does not have players roleplay as specific characters, so the acting function is downplayed and the authorship increased. In games like Jake Richmond’s Sea Dracula, acting and audience take the stage while the author function is minimized. This goes even further in LARPs with pre-built scenarios such as Jason Morningstar’s Juggernaut or Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu’s Sign. In these sorts of games, the emphasis is almost entirely on acting, as the creation of the characters and story is already complete before the game starts, with only a few details left up to the players. To be clear, players are still authoring the story–they’re just doing it with more constraints due to the already-existing fiction.

Most games don’t tell you when you’re engaging in one of these functions, but some do. The best example I can think of is Ben Robbins’s Follow. When resolving a Challenge, players are first asked to judge what the Fellowship is doing from the perspective of their main character. This is author and actor together, as players try to imagine what their character thinks and feels. Then we zoom out for our second choice: as a player, do you feel like the characters did what was needed to accomplish the Challenge? This is an author and audience level question, because you are examining the characters’ actions you’ve just invented to see if they meet some (admittedly arbitrary and fictional) standards for success. Follow explicitly asks you to step out of the story and think like an author, which I think is why this stage of play works so well: it draws your attention to your function and grants you space to examine what you’ve just made.

So where does all this lead? When it comes to game design, understanding these functions allows you to zoom out of the game a bit and analyze each step or phase. A talented designer is able to identify what they’re asking their players to do at each stage of play and tailor the rules accordingly. When you want your players to be authors, give them the tools they need to make choices that will create a better story. When you want them to be actors, give them the structure they need to step into that role as easily as possible. When you want them to be the audience, make it easy for them to enjoy that experience and focus on the story.

Let me give you a couple examples of good design choices that enhance players’ ability to fill these roles. In Caroline Hobbs’s Downfall, players are asked to come up with six Traditions within the culture of the game’s setting, the Haven. But instead of simply giving that instruction and letting players loose, Caroline lightens the creative load by having them choose culture ideas from a list, tie those ideas to the Flaw, and create the Traditions in two steps: behavior or belief first, then symbol second (but of another player’s culture item). This process makes authorship so much easier because it doesn’t ask players to come up with ideas completely out of nowhere.

Similarly, helping players with acting is important for any roleplaying game. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco does this with graceful simplicity. Each player receives a predefined Relationship with the characters to their left and right, and at least one pair of players also have a Need that both their characters share. These small details are actually critical to the game’s success, because they give players a baseline for how to act. “Talk about the crime you want to commit” is all well and good, but “talk about the crime, except you’re also bitter exes” is easier to step into because we as players know instinctively what kinds of things people with that sort of connection might say to one another. 

Overall, it’s not so important to be able to identify which function you’re filling while playing a game. But if you’re a game designer or are critiquing a design, it can be useful to identify which role players are being asked to step into and then analyze how the game’s rules support player success in that role. Does the game provide guiding questions or principles to help players be better authors? Does it give them clear frameworks for how to act when they’re called to role-play? Does it invite them to be better audience members by making it easy for them to focus on what’s happening and to “yes, and” what others have brought to the story? The process of refining a game’s design is never easy, but this framework of author / actor / audience can give you some terminology to help find your footing as you begin the journey.

The Farnsworth Problem

posted by Marc

It was October of 2010, and I was a rookie player at the Story Games Seattle meetup. Seated with me were three others–our facilitator Emily, and two fellow newbies named Pat and Shuo. The four of us cracked open Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco and chose one of the baked-in settings, the Old West. We rolled our dice, made our characters, and unleashed mayhem.

Several hours of laughter later, we parted ways with funny moments to cherish. Of particular note was the strange custom in our town of High Mesa: bar patrons would toast with one glass of whiskey, then smash it on the table and drink from a second glass instead. Our characters were a hilarious mix of scoundrels and marks, but one in particular deserves special mention: Dr. Farnsworth, a snake oil salesman who ended up wandering blind in the desert at the end of our story, the victim of his own hubris. When we left the table that night, none of us expected to see any of the weird rogues we’d invented again.

But six months later, Dr. Farnsworth returned.

It was another Story Games Seattle Meetup night in May 2011, and I sat down with my friends Pat and Shuo to play Fiasco again. This time we picked the Reconstruction setting, and as we revealed our characters, Pat dropped a bomb on us: he would be reprising his role as Dr. Farnsworth. We set the game one year prior to the events of our game in High Mesa in order to facilitate this. The doctor’s reappearance was not something we planned or expected… and it turned out great.

Some months after that, Pat, Shuo and I decided we’d had so much fun with our Reconstruction game that we wanted to play yet another round of Fiasco, but with the focus entirely on a younger Rhett Farnsworth (before he obtained his fake honorary title) as he became the scheming con man we knew and loathed. We set a date, gathered at a bar, and dove in.

And it sucked. We ended up quitting after just a few scenes.

Why did the game fail? It wasn’t the players–Pat, Shuo, and I were seasoned veterans by that point, having played dozens of story games over the preceding year. We knew what we were doing. It wasn’t the system–Fiasco is about as solid as a story game gets. Was Farnsworth so unlikeable that we couldn’t stand to keep the spotlight on him for that long? No, we’d worked to make him sympathetic and relatable as we set up the game, so it wasn’t that either. What, then? Why did our third game with this character bomb when our second was such a hit?

We’d fallen victim to what I call “The Farnsworth Problem”.

The reason the third game didn’t work was because we forgot one of the most important rules of story games: play to find out. When we started our second Farnsworth game, the inclusion of Farnsworth added value because the character was a nod to the past–a fun cameo–but he wasn’t the sole focus of the game. We’d put just as much effort into creating the other two characters, and the interplay between the old and the new led to a unique, unexpected story. Furthermore, there was still much of his tale unknown and untold. All we had set in stone was the fact that he survived to the end.

Contrast this with our third game, where we set out specifically to tell Farnsworth’s story. That would’ve been fine if we didn’t already know so much about Farnsworth, but the problem was this: we’d already played the game before we sat down to play. We had a checklist in our heads of what Farnsworth had to be, do, see, and become (based on everything we’d learned in the first two games), so there was very little room left for us to add anything new to his story. Telling his tale didn’t feel like creating new fiction as author/actor/audience. Instead, it felt like we were coloring in the margins of a painting that was already largely complete.

Playing to find out means walking into scenes and interaction without knowing how they’ll end. It means allowing your ideas for the story to be fluid, and being willing to let yourself be surprised by what others bring to the fiction. It does not mean being completely unaware of what will ultimately happen to the characters. In fact, many great games give you the ending up front (e.g. Downfall, Metrofinál, Microscope, my forthcoming title Epitaph) and ask you to play the parts leading up to it. This doesn’t ruin the story: it enhances it.

The Farnsworth Problem is, fundamentally, one of playing the game before you play the game. We knew everything we wanted to know about Farnsworth, so there wasn’t anything fun left to do with his story. Could we have found a way to make it work? Maybe. We could have tried doing what we did in the second game: create an interesting cast of other characters and tell their stories alongside Farnsworth’s. But even that might not have saved the game, because the constraints we put ourselves under in order to make Farnsworth’s story turn out how it was “supposed” to turn out were so limiting that we would’ve spent a lot of our time stopping the game to say “wait, that doesn’t work because he has to do XYZ”–which is what we did throughout our third game.

To avoid “pulling a Farnsworth”, be mindful of how much of your story you’ve already got mapped out in your head before you play. Is there a certain outcome you need to have happen? That can work if it’s broad (e.g the Hero fails), but the more specific the parameters, the less room there is for exploration, discovery, and surprise–the very things that make story games satisfying in the first place.